“We’re going to teach Wynstones students Chinese – what do you think?”, Principal Paul Hougham said to me on a socially-distanced walk the other day. “Marvellous idea”, I replied, “but not for the obvious reasons”.
Yes, learning Chinese will allow you to communicate with a fifth of the world’s population, but this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of its relevance to today’s students. It’s been said that while the sciences inform, the arts civilise, and this is precisely the case with Chinese. English is a very precise language, having more words than any other in its lexicon (think Victorians scurrying around the world frantically naming bugs). Chinese, on the other hand, has the marvellous ability to combine broad meaning with precision.
In my early Chinese studies, I would often ask people what a particular character meant, but I soon gave up, because the answer would invariably be, “it depends on the context”. In other words, the character you put next to another changes the meaning. For example, the word for ‘considerate’ in Chinese is made up of the two characters for ‘circle’ and ‘to arrive’. The idea being that if you arrive at all points on a circle, you will take into account all possible viewpoints, and that will make you considerate to others.
Why is this useful, I hear you ask? Well, as you learn to conceive of the world around you through the medium of Chinese instead of English, your brain learns to move very quickly from the broad concepts of individual characters to precise meaning when they’re put into context, and back again to broad concepts. This trains an incredible flexibility of mind and imparts a level of philosophical sophistication that is a very useful tool in critical thinking. Oh, and it just might make you more considerate too.
David Dobson is a China consultant, specialising in various aspects of modern and traditional Chinese culture. He is a graduate of Leeds University and The College of Traditional Acupuncture. He spent many years in China as a journalist, commercial translator and student of language and Chinese medicine. He currently lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire, and divides his time between looking after his two young daughters, practising Chinese medicine, translating books and ancient philosophical texts, teaching Qigong and running Chinese tea ceremonies.
Teach Chinese at Wynstones